Guest Column

Building a lineup when shallow on shekels: A primer

Photo: Earl Gardner

PSP reader Michael Hikari Cecire shares a guest column with some thoughts on how the cash strapped Union might maximize their spending power.

Good news! Philadelphia needs a new goalkeeper! Oops, sorry, that’s the entry for next week’s column.

Good news! Philly needs a left back. And, in the process of getting one, we’ll probably also need a right back. Also, as Dan points out, we also need: a non-target secondary striker, a real-life No. 6 on the right side of 30, and some added quality on the wings. And, hilariously, probably even a new goalkeeper. No, I’m not joking — we all know that it’s only a matter of time. Also, did I mention a left back?

That’s a pretty major shopping list, even for bottom feeders like us (#wssm). And with a front office that tends to wax poetic about “smart” spending (read: poor), filling all these gaps is not going to be easy. Barring a magical influx of FO cash and an even less likely bout of introspection, ploughing top Western European leagues — or even the big South American competitions — for solid, affordable talent is going to be a tall order.

Minimize liabilities

What to do? The first thing a team like Philly must do is reconfigure its existing pool — now. Guys like Fabinho, while maybe not deserving of a one-way trip to our nearest star, is a bona fide liability at left back, full stop. As in, starting Fabinho at left back again suggests a proactive desire to fail. Like racking up own-goals in FIFA just to annoy your Barcelona-cheesing cousin who celebrates every virtual goal like he’s just clinched the Ballon d’Or.

But while Fabinho may be a pub league left back at best, we know that he is capable of dynamism on the attack. No, he’s no Gareth Bale, or even Da Marcus Beasley (neither circa 2006 nor now), but it is a spot where he has legitimate, non-invented value. Move him there — at least until he can be offloaded to one of innumerable rumored big club suitors.

Same goes for other positions. Maximize value, minimize liability. That’s what Coach Jim Curtin did with Maurice Edu — a good to great midfielder but an erratic No. 6 due to his tendency to creep forward. But moving him to center back forced him to stay home and do what he does best. (Other than Saturday, I mean. You know what I mean.)(P.S. Remember that time we had a really good CDM who got the job done on the field and in the locker room? Remember how we gave him away for a song? Yeah.) And for god sakes, the coaching staff and team need to shower Sebastien Le Toux with compliments, because we all know that he’s got a hell of a killer instinct when he has confidence.

Gaming the transfer market

Not everything can or will be fixed by rearranging the deck chairs. Fresh blood will need to be brought in, whether from within the league or internationally. Again, as Dan mentioned in his column, there are a number of potential starters warming the bench on other teams — it’s just our responsibility to get them. Start watching NASL games, too — c’mon, they’re streaming on ESPN3 now; the league itself may be structurally suspect, but it has a respectable quality of play and a nearby, relatively inexpensive pool of targets, of which many are MLS quality. This is also true to an extent in USL, though the league’s seeming transformation into an MLS reserve competition does limit transfer opportunities.

Further afield, it’s time to get past talent-rich but scout-infested leagues of Western Europe and South America. If we’re honest, Philly is going to have a hard enough time competing with the likes of DC United and the NY Cosmos for player acquisitions, not to mention the big European clubs.

One region where we may have more luck is Eastern Europe. The quality of Eastern European leagues wildly vary, but it’s a regular, if somewhat below-the-radar, exporter of talent. And now, more than ever, the geopolitics of the region also make Eastern Europe a buyer’s market; the Russian economy is in a tailspin, bringing neighboring markets down with it. Ukraine’s celebrated, if perennially corruption-riddled, national league is facing immense pressures with the economy in shambles and Russian-backed forces carving out pro-Moscow satrapies in its industrial east. MLS may not be able to offer La Liga wages, but there is a certain baseline of stability and quality of life that many players would gladly consider if given the chance. What is happening in Eastern Europe is unfortunate, and in many places tragic, but Philly can seize on these circumstances and offer some choice players a chance for a way out. That’s just political risk 101.

The obvious problem is the scouting. Philly’s scouting network seems sparse, to the extent it meaningfully exists at all, and the closest thing we have to a pipeline are friends-of-friends. To get around this, we can start by acquiring a couple of relatively known quantities. For example, US passport-holding Armenian international and Spartak Moscow striker Yura Movsisyan, who once lit up MLS for Real Salt Lake in their more glorious past, is reportedly available due to Spartak boss Murat Yakin’s alleged anti-Armenian biases (that’s Eurasia for you). Or, there’s striker Irakli Sirbiladze, a Georgian international with a terrifying strike rate who happens to be suiting up alongside none other than Freddy Adu in the Finnish top flight.

While Philly definitely needs to loosen to purse strings, there are ways it can maximize its existing assets and transfer targeting without docking Nick Sakiewicz’s caviar allowance. Few Union fans expect us to be poaching starting players in big Western European leagues on a regular basis, but we do expect to be competitive. And when we’re not — like, uh, now — it’s time to change the way things are done.

Michael Hikari Cecire is an international relations analyst by day and a curmudgeonly Union fan by day/night. He tweets (mostly about IR) at @mhikaric.

12 Comments

  1. This is well written and well thought out. Good read. I had to look up satrapies. Word of the day to you sir.
    .
    I agree with the eastern european dig and often think of the mexican leagues as a means of mining talent.
    .
    But it has to be with purpose. There needs to be a bigger thought structure in place. Someone capable of doing trigonometry in their head figuring what pieces to get, where to get, how those pieces are going to work together.
    .
    This club needs a football mind. In the worst way.
    .
    If the league as a whole is just beginning to play decent chess compared to the league around the world, that is a good thing and a proper arc… while this club is still playing Connect 4 and Checkers, !KING ME!
    .
    I crush my 8 year old in Chess and I’m not very good, but he beats me regularly in checkers.

    • WilkersonMcLaser says:

      Yeah, agree. Philly is procuring players like it has the coin to compete with the likes of Toronto, LA, and Seattle, but we have far, far less. Only way to compete is to do things differently.

    • alicat215 says:

      Agree about Eastern Europe, but Mexico would be a stretch. I know you want Pachuca or Cruz Azul to coop us……but that would be our best case scenario. Mexican clubs are already raiding our youth in Texas and SoCal……and the youth there are choosing Mexican clubs over MLS academies. Until the MLS gets its $hit together………the better kids in that region will go there. I’m pretty sure Mexico’s U-20’s or 23’s have like 5 players with dual nationalities who could have played for the States……

      • I’ve been considering a move to the Forth Worth area. On the rise.
        .
        I do want a partnership in the worst way with a Mexican or SA club. Got me figured out.

  2. WilkersonMcLaser says:

    Danny Cruz just scored in Norway! I never thought I’d be pining for that guy to return.
    .
    Just a thought, but has anyone thought to try out Danny Cruz at LB? He’s got the pace and frame to be a great wingback. Some defensive chops and suddenly he’s valuable. Maybe worth a shot when/if he gets back?

  3. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Referencing past lamented DCMs, he was taken off at halftime this past weekend and replaced, no injury involved, poor play, not successful supporting offensive development. I hope it was just a bad day.

  4. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Key point in the good article above is that a scouting network needs to exist. At most there has been one scout, and currently there are none that I have identified. As any sports team, scouting is the keystone.

  5. Dr. Union says:

    While this all makes sense it won’t be done by the organization because it makes sense. The other thing is why doesn’t the Union ever utilize the trade market to acquire players. You see MLS players week in and week out you know who is sitting on the bench who is playing. You know the skill sets or at least you should. None of this we traded so and so for invisible allocation money that we will never use. How bout something like trading Carroll to a team that needs veteran presence like Vancouver who is a very young team but good team who will need veteran presence in the playoffs. In return for a young defender I mean they have 6 under the age of 24 one of them has to be worth taking a look at. Do we need another young defender probably not but you get one then trade Fabinho to the many suitors plus put White on the block and trade again. This team could be built on the right trades and using M’bohli contract to split into to good quality transfer targets. I mean I don’t see anyone on this team who is not tradeable. However, I would say the people to get rid of that we’ve seen enough from and have some if little value to other teams are Williams, Edu(if you can get enough for him like a 2 for one deal), Wenger, Carroll, White, Fabinho.

    • If you find a team to give you a bag of balls for Brian Carrol, I’m in. Otherwise any thing else is a pipe dream. As to your “You see MLS players week in and week out you know who is sitting on the bench who is playing. You know the skill sets or at least you should”, the other teams see the Union every week too. Those other teams also see how bad the Union play. And those other teams seem to have done better with their rosters. Why would they give us anything for whats on ours? Kinda like the Phils trying to trade Howard. Why would you give up something worth a damn, when what you’d get back is totally broken?

      • Dr. Union says:

        Any trade the union would be making would be for low tier players obviously with hope of their value growing (thats why they should be young and lower value contracts). As far as other teams are concerned they would be trading on potential and what they have seen out of players in the past, expecting that they can get them to that point. For example: how Williams was 2 years ago, Edu at Rangers, or like I said veteran locker room presence would be my other thought. This wasn’t a trade, but Orlando picked up Shea on his potential that he had back in MLS not what he had in Stoke. The only hope is teams would see something in one of the union players that they have either always wanted or hoped they could get in some way. I mean Hackworth said they wanted Wenger so the they traded Jack Mac now not saying it was a good trade, but coaches have preferences for players.

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